The Boswell Sisters in 1930 or early 1931. Pictured on the sheet music cover for “Roll On, Misissippi, Roll On”.
It seems that it’s been far too long since we last heard from our good friends the Boswell Sisters. I try to give both the sisters’ works and Connie’s solos equal attention in accordance with the fairness doctrine, and it’s already been more than a year since I last posted one of the trio’s records, so here are those syncopating harmonists from New Orleans with one of their earliest records.
The years of 1929 and ’30 saw the Boswell Sisters on the West Coast. They had settled in Los Angeles following a vaudeville tour of the States, residing in an apartment at El Pueblo Court in Hollywood. They became popular local radio artists, even recording around fifty titles for a series of transcription discs made by the Continental Broadcasting Corporation to be shipped out for broadcast in Hawaii. They also “side-miked” for some motion pictures, to have their voices dubbed over those of movie actors that couldn’t sing, notably for the number “Harlem Hop” in the film Under Montana Skies. In 1930, they hadn’t made a commercial record in five years, not since their first one made in New Orleans in 1925, but that was soon to change. That July, the sisters teamed with Jackie Taylor’s Los Angeles-based dance band to record two sides, “We’re On the Highway to Heaven” from Oh Sailor Behave and “That’s What I Like About You”, though only the former was released. Later, that October, Okeh recorded them solo, singing four songs including the first commercial take of their signature song “Heebie Jeebies”. All four sides were released, essentially constituting the beginning of their solo recording career. Not long after, with Harry Leedy hired as their manager, they moved to New York and began their fruitful engagement with Brunswick, often accompanied by the Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, that resulted in their vibrant and prolific legacy.
Okeh 41470 was recorded on October 3 and 31, 1930 in Los Angeles, California, the second of their two Okeh records. The instrumentation consists solely of Martha Boswell’s piano and the trio’s vocal effects. This is the pure, unadulterated Boswell Sisters sound of their early days, before the influence of manager Harry Leedy, record bigwig Jack Kapp, and their ilk.
On the first side, the Bozzies sing “Gee, But I’d Like to Make You Happy” from the musical picture Good News (it was written for the movie and did not appear in the 1927 stage production).
Gee, But I’d Like to Make You Happy, recorded October 3, 1930 by The Three Boswell Sisters.
On the flip, recorded at the later date, they sing one of my favorite Boswell performances, “Don’t Tell Her What’s Happened to Me”, rendered as “Don’t Tell Him“.
Don’t Tell Her What’s Happened to Me, recorded October 31, 1930 by The Three Boswell Sisters.
Long before the days of so-called “country and western” music, real working cattlemen sang and played their songs out on the range. Regrettably, being so far away from centers of civilization, only relatively little of that authentic cowboy music was fortunate enough to be recorded for posterity before commercial hillbilly music took off. However, a handful of real cowboy singers and musicians did make it into the studio, including the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, founded by former Rough Rider Billy McGinty, which, unlike many contemporaries, would later go on to achieve nationwide acclaim.
The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, directed by Otto Gray, broadcasting from the General Electric station WGY, Schenectady, N.Y. around 1930. Left-to-right: Otto Gray, Rex, Florence “Mommie” Gray, Owen “Zeb” Gray, “Chief” Sanders, Lee “Zeke” Allen, and Wade “Hy” Allen. Pictured in Songs: Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, 1930.
Band founder and financier William M. “Billy” McGinty of the Indian Territory was a true cowboy of legendary stature. Born in Missouri on New Year’s Day of 1871, he started out punching cattle at the age of fourteen, on a ranch in Kansas. During those years, he got to know old west legends by the likes of outlaw Bill Doolin and built up a reputation for being able bust any bronc, no matter how tough it were. Following the loss of the Battleship Maine, he went south to join up with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, going on to become a hero at the Battle of San Juan Hill—Roosevelt said of him, “we had no better or braver man in the fights”. When the war was through, he came back home to become a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sometime in the early 1920s, McGinty founded the Oklahoma Cowboy Band of local musicians around Ripley, Oklahoma. The band made their first radio appearance in 1925 on Bristow, Oklahoma’s KFRU, and their first record for Okeh the following year. McGinty later retired as the band’s manager to focus on his ranch in Ingalls and his duties as postmaster of Ripley, leaving Otto Gray, who raised midget cattle in Stillwater and had previously served as the band’s director, to assume his position and lead the band to great national success. McGinty published an autobiography titled The Old West, as Written in the Words of Billy McGinty in 1937. In his later years, he served stints as president of the Roosevelt Rough Riders Association and the Cherokee Strip Cowpunchers Association. Billy McGinty died on May 21, 1961 at the age of ninety, and was buried in the Ingalls Cemetery.
Okeh 45057 was recorded in St. Louis, Missouri in May of 1926 by Dave Cutrell and McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band (Otto Gray, director). Both the DAHR and Rust and Laird’s Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 place the recordings in Atlanta, Georgia in March of that year, but earlier pressings on the state “Recorded in St. Louis” on the label, and Victoria Spivey made her first recordings on the adjoining matrices in St. Louis on May 11, 1926, likely placing these around that date. The May date is further corroborated by Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942. Although the label credits McGinty’s band as accompanying Cutrell’s vocal on the first side, he is backed only by a single guitar, likely his own. The personnel of McGinty’s Cowboy Band for this session is unknown, but it may include Cutrell. McGinty’s band cut two additional unissued sides that day, the titles and contents of which are lost to time.
Dave Cutrell’s recording of “Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special” holds the distinction of being the first recorded version of the traditional prison song “The Midnight Special”. It was subsequently recorded by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles for Paramount around April of 1927 as “Walk Right in Belmont”, blues man Sam Collins for Gennett that September, and again by Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band in March of 1929. In the next decade, the song came to be associated with Lead Belly, who made his first of at least five recordings of the song at his second Library of Congress session with John Avery Lomax while still incarcerated at Angola Prison Farm on July 1, 1934. Since then, it has been recorded countless times in a variety of styles and genres.
By many accounts, the song spins a story of a prisoner at Texas’ Sugar Land penitentiary longing to receive a pardon from the governor. The titular Midnight Special was a train that came in the middle of the night to take pardoned ex-convicts away, so as to avoid the threat of extrajudicial action by people in town, and legend had it that if the Midnight Special shone its light on you, you were soon to be pardoned. Cutrell adds two humorous verses of his own mentioning band leaders Billy McGinty and Otto Gray: “Mr. McGinty’s a good man, but he’s run away now with a cowboy band.” and “Now Otto Gray, he’s a Stillwater man, but he’s manager now of a cowboy band.”
Pistol Pete’s Midnight Special, recorded c. May 1926 by Dave Cutrell.
On the “B” side, with fiddle, guitar, banjo, and ‘cello, McGinty’s Oklahoma Cowboy Band plays a rousing instrumental of “Cow Boy’s Dream” that puts you right there by the campfire. In my opinion, this side is one of only a few records that capture the mystique of the wide open space of the Old West. It also appears that whoever was typesetting the labels for Okeh that day wasn’t too fond of compound words.
Cow Boy’s Dream, recorded c. May 1926 by Mc Ginty’s Oklahoma Cow Boy Band (Otto Gray, Director).
The last time we heard from the “Pride of West Virginia”—our old pal Frank Hutchison—he gave us two fine songs, joined on one by Sherman Lawson on fiddle. Now let’s hear from Frank again with two of his most famous performances, played on slide guitar.
Willis Franklin Hutchison was born most probably on March 20, 1897 in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia, but soon relocated to Logan County. He later dedicated his “Logan County Blues”—a re-working of the tune called “Spanish Fandango”—to that location, in which he spent most of his life. He learned the blues from local black musicians, and was an excellent guitarist, playing in regular style and flat on his lap using a pocketknife as a slide, and also possessed formidable skill on harmonica. Like fellow folk musician “Dock” Boggs, Hutchison made his living as a coal miner, and only musicianed on the side. He was said to have been a large (but slim) fellow with red hair and an extroverted personality, and reportedly walked with a limp, likely a result of an injury in the mines. In September of 1926, Hutchison became one of the pre-Bristol sessions “hillbilly” musicians on records when he traveled to New York City for a session with the Okeh record company, producing in that session but a single disc. That was not to be all for Frank Hutchison however, he returned to the city to record again in January of the next year, producing his notable rendition of “Stackalee” included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and eight other titles. Thereafter, he continued to record for Okeh, in New York and “on location”, until 1929, ultimately leaving a legacy of more than forty recorded sides in all. After the conclusion of his recording career, Hutchison moved from Logan County to Ohio, but soon settled in the small town of Lake, West Virginia, where he worked as postmaster and operated a store. A fire claimed Hutchison’s property in 1942, after which he moved to Dayton, Ohio, reputedly entertaining on riverboats. Frank Hutchison died from liver disease on November 9, 1945. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2018, seventy-three years after his passing.
Okeh 45114 was recorded on April 29, 1927 in St. Louis, Missouri by Frank Hutchison. It’s worthy of note that both sides are remakes of his first two sides, which were recorded acoustically on September 28, 1926 and released on Okeh 45064. In my opinion as well as that, I’m sure, of many others, these sides are considerably better and more polished performances than that original record, in addition to being unquestionably superior quality recordings, technically speaking.
First, Hutchison plays what may well be his most famous song, which earned him the scholarly recognition of being one of the earliest white musicians to play the country blues: “Worried Blues”.
Worried Blues, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.
On the other side, Frank plays another one of his finest, the classic “The Train That Carried the Girl From Town”. “Breakfast on the table, coffee’s gettin’ cold, some old rounder stole my jelly roll.”
The Train That Carried the Girl From Town, recorded April 29, 1927 by Frank Hutchison.
Few songs in the vast and diverse country blues tradition have had such an enduring impact, and few melodies known such ubiquity, as the Mississippi Sheiks’ legendary 1930 recording of “Sitting On Top of the World”. Yet in spite of its great import, the song’s origins are quite obscure. Thus, I endeavor herein to unravel the tangled roots of one of America’s greatest blues songs. I do ask that if you readers have any greater insight into the song’s history than I have to offer, please let me in on it by commenting on this post.
The Mississippi Sheiks were a versatile country string band with a repertoire consisting of everything from deep plantation blues melodies to the latest Tin Pan Alley pop hits. Though its personnel varied from session to session, core members were Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vinson on guitar. Sometimes, they were joined by other Chatmon brothers Sam and Armenter—better known as Bo Carter—or mandolin player Papa Charlie McCoy, brother of Kansas Joe McCoy. The Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi had a venerable musical history in the region. Patriarch Henderson Chatmon, born into slavery around 1850, was a fiddle player, and he passed his legacy of music on to his sons Lonnie, Bo, Sam, Harry, and reputedly Charley Patton by a different mother. Lonnie Chatmon was born either in June of 1888 or on November 8, 1890. He provided the heart of the Sheiks as their main fiddle player, remaining ever-present through all the Sheiks sessions and varying membership. Guitar picker Walter Vinson, sometimes called Vincent or Vincson, and credited pseudonymously as Walter Jacobs, was born on February 2, 1901, also in Bolton. Prior to becoming a Mississippi Sheik, he played alongside such noted talents as Charlie Spand, Rube Lacey, and the aforementioned Papa Charlie McCoy. He made his first records with Bo Carter for Brunswick in 1928, also Carter’s first.
Following in the footsteps of similar Bo Carter and Walter Vinson groups of 1928 and ’29, the Mississippi Sheiks had their first recording session in Shreveport, Louisiana in February of 1930 for Okeh, and continued to record exclusively for them through 1931, with several of their records released in the 45000 “hillbilly” series rather than the 8000 “race” series, and their two final discs appearing on the parent label Columbia. While at Okeh, the Sheiks accompanied “Texas” Alexander in a single San Antonio session. Meanwhile, offshoot groups such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Mississippi Blacksnakes, both featuring Charlie McCoy, cut several records for Okeh and Brunswick. Thereafter, they traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to make a series of records for the faltering Paramount label in July of ’32 before returning to Okeh in ’33 for a single session while the record industry was in dire straits. The following year, they signed with RCA Victor’s new up-and-comer Bluebird, with whom they remained until their final session in 1935. Lonnie cut several more records for Bluebird late in 1936 with brother Sam Chatmon, who had participated in a handful of earlier Sheiks sessions, before calling it quits.
After the days of the Mississippi Sheiks had drawn to a close in the middle of the 1930s, the Chatmons, excepting Bo, quit music and returned to a life as farmers. Lonnie Chatmon died around 1942 of ’43. Walter Vinson and Bo Carter continued to enjoy solo recording careers into the 1940s. Bo Carter made some (as yet unreleased) final recordings for Paul Oliver in 1960 with Will Shade and Dewey Corley of the Memphis Jug Band, and died four years later at the age of seventy-one. Walter Vinson too returned to music in 1960, making a rather more successful comeback than Carter, before retiring for the last time in 1972, owing to atherosclerosis, three years before his death. Sam Chatmon spent many years working on plantations in Mississippi before the folk revival of the 1960s brought him back to the spotlight with great success, dying at the age of 86 in 1983.
Okeh 8784 was recorded at the Mississippi Sheiks’ first session on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Sheiks are Walter Vinson (a.k.a. Walter Jacobs) on guitar and vocal, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, and on the second side, Bo Carter on second guitar. It is the Sheiks’ second issued record.
Without a doubt the Sheiks’ greatest success—then as now—is “Sitting on Top of the World”. The Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon accredited composition has subsequently been covered by dozens, if not hundreds of artists, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. After proving to be one of the biggest “race” hits of 1930, the Sheiks followed up with “Sitting on Top of the World No. 2” (Okeh 8854) in 1931 and “The New Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Paramount 13134) in ’32. Bearing no resemblance to the 1926 popular song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” besides its title, the unmistakable melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, or a very similar one, was used by quite a number of recordings prior to the Sheiks’ 1930 waxing.
Where exactly and from whom the melody originated is considerably more difficult to pin down than simply citing some of the many songs to use it. Walter Vinson claimed to have written the song after playing for a white dance. Ida Cox recorded “How Long, Daddy, How Long” in 1925 with a like melody, accompanied by Papa Charlie Jackson, the composer credited as “W.H. Jackson”. Leroy Carr made that song famous three years later with his influential “How Long – How Long Blues”, and reused the melody in his “You Got to Reap What You Sow” only two months later. Some have suggested that the Sheiks were introduced to the melody by way of Tampa Red and a song he recorded several times called “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, however I am dubious of that prospect; the earliest recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” was cut on January 17, 1931 by one “Sam Hill” from Louisville—apparently a pseudonym for Walter Vinson—for Brunswick records, at the same session as the Sheiks’ offshoot the Mississippi Blacksnakes. Tampa Red made his first recording of the song the following month, with the composer credited as “Sam Hill”. The Sheiks themselves recorded the song later in that year. However, prior to every recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, the Atlanta-based fiddler Eddie Anthony recorded the very similar “Everything’s Coming My Way” in December of 1930, with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”. To complicate matters further, the 1941 Sam Price and his Texas Bluesiscians recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” perplexingly credits Bert Johnson and Spencer Williams as composers.
Contemporaneous to the Sheik’s “Stitting On Top of the World”, a version was cut by Charley Patton, an associate of the Sheiks, only a few months after theirs under the title “Some Summer Day”. Big Bill Broonzy used the popular melody in his two-parter “Worrying You Off My Mind” in 1932, and Robert Johnson too echoed it in his 1936 “Come On in My Kitchen”. Milton Brown introduced the tune into the western swing repertoire with his 1934 recording titled “Just Sitting on Top of the World”, which was in turn covered by Bob Wills and others.
Sitting on Top of the World, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
Though a little worse for wear, owing to a touch of groove stripping, the Sheiks give us some more of their good stuff, with Bo Carter sitting in, on the less well-remembered, but nonetheless excellent “Lonely One In this Town”.
Lonely One In this Town, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.
This occasion’s serenade is provided by the obscure but outstanding string duo of Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, who play here a couple of snappy rag numbers on mandolin and guitar.
Napoleon “Nap” Hayes and Matthew Prater were a pair of black musicians hailing from Vicksburg, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Hayes was likely born in 1885 in West Corinth, Mississippi, and Prater in New Albany in either 1886 or on June 30, 1889. With Hayes on guitar and Prater on mandolin, the two played raggy music in a style not too disparate from that of the Dallas String Band. In February of 1928, they traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to record a total of eight sides for Okeh Records, out of which all but two were issued. Half of those eight featured vocals and violin by Lonnie Johnson (though some sources, including Discography of Okeh Records, cite a different Johnson—T.C. Johnson—who recorded at the same field trip as part of the minstrel-esque trio Johnson-Nelson-Porkchop). Out of those three discs, only one was released in the 8000 “race” series, while the other two were in the 45000 “hillbilly” series. Each record was credited differently, one under their own names as Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, another as “The Blue Boys”, and one with Johnson as “The Johnson Boys”. Of note, those sides included a piece titled “Easy Winner”, which, despite taking the name of another of his rags, was in fact a take on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. That session accounted for the entirety of Hayes and Prater’s recorded legacy, and their later lives are as yet undocumented.
Okeh 45231 was recorded February 15, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater. Hayes plays guitar, while Prater takes the raggy mandolin. I picked this record up in a junk shop, and it’s not in the most wonderful condition, but it plays quite well in spite of it. Not bad for a record that made the 78 Quarterly’s list of “The Rarest 78s”!
The duo first play a peppy rendition of Scott Joplin’s 1903 rag “Something Doing”, here styled as “Somethin’ Doin'”.
Somethin’ Doin’, recorded February 15, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.
As an answer to the first tune, on the flip they play the folk rag “Nothin’ Doin'”, a little bluer—and a little cleaner playing—than the previous side. I’m hearing a bit of Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” interpolated in this tune (“oh-oh, honey what’s the matter now”).
Nothin’ Doin, recorded February 28, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.